Before we look at the different types of rituals in the context of what they emphasize and deemphasize according to the concept of the ritual plane, I think it will behoove us to look at the single ritual where all elements (cosmogenic, commugenic, giving, and receiving) are in perfect harmony. Each one is represented here, and in that representation, no element gives way to another. I believe this helps underscore the idea (presented previously both here and elsewhere) that Blót is the highest form of sacrifice men can engage in. It brings us closest to the Gods, it unites us as a community, and it is the simultaneous giving and receiving of life.
The act of sacrifice is an imitation of the Mythic Act, but also its recreation. An act of slaying, apportioning, and allotting an animal mimics the act of creation, when the giant Ymir was slain, apportioned into the cosmos, and the parts of the world allotted to those who lived within it. The cosmogeny is, at its heart, the ordering of chaos into predictable words. Here we have the first layers of orlæg being laid down, and order rests at the heart of Orlæg. The act of slaughter and butchering is an act of ordering. It is also an act of violence. It is a dangerous act, because a sacrifice can go wrong, chaos can be introduced and perpetuated. The danger is not only inherent in the ritual – the presence of dangerous implements, the unpredictability of the animal leading up to slaughter, or that of its death throes, the reactions of the crowd to blood and death; but it is also in its cosmogenic status that danger is introduced: for what happens when the the Act of creation becomes unsuccessful. If we are adding to the Wyrdish inertia of the primal act, and we do not successfully recreate it, there will be consequences both for ourselves and our cosmos.
Every ritual contains elements of the cosmogenic. When we apportion a space, we divide it up, we apportion it. It must be ordered, which suggests straight lines and right angles. In order to create a straight line, it requires three points of reference. You have the two points that form the line, and then a third to verify that the line is straight. If you are lining up a space with the direction of the sun, then you will need three people. The origin point, the point of reference for the sun, and then a third to mark out and stake the line. Three seems to be the minimum to do this. Three also allows for the ordered and efficient dispatching of an animal. One to hold the animal, one to catch the blood, and one to strike with the knife. In Cuisine of the Sacrifice Among the Greeks, a number of reproductions of decorations on a Greek urn showing sacrificial practice is reproduced; in many of them, the number of people conducting are 3. In no cases are there a single person. This is because blót is not a singular exercise. It is impossible for a single person to conduct an actual blót, no matter the number of tricks and technology in his employ to dispatch the animal. Cosmogenically, in the fact that blót recreates the cosmos, you need three to imitate the initial act of sacrifice.
A single person conducting blót unbalances the act, because it eliminates the commugenic aspects. Wóden and his two brothers coming together to slay Ymir created a tribe of gods, separate from the Giants that preceded the creation of the world. Without that element in blót, you are creating something else; you are laying down a pattern that does not mimic the first act, and there will be consequences for that imperfect recreation.
Girard, of whom I’ve written previously, underscores the absolute need for unity in the sacrificial act. For him it is the unity of sacrifice that produces the catharsis. I believe that the unity is both pre-requisite and product of the ritual act. That in many ways, rituals serve to recognize social facts that already exist, but in a way that reifies them, that gives them actual weight. It may be, for example, that a community exists, in that here is a grouping of individuals that come together over common goals and interests, and develop relationships that transcend those goals and relationships. But without the actions of a community, it remains only an ephemeral thing. Until there is action – and meaningful action at that – this ephemeral thing is not brought about into the world. For friendships, this is usually a moment when one friend is present to be a friend for another at a time when that person needs a friend. Relationships are shaped by the hands of ordeal, not the easy action of easy times. It is when times are dangerous that action matters most.
For a religious community, the fundamental act that defines and establishes the community is the religious ritual, coming together to establish, reestablish, and perpetuate the communal relationship between members of the community, and the relationship between that community and the community of the Gods. This relationship is anchored by the idea of reciprocal gifting, and here is where we truly see where blót embodies the ideal of those concepts of reciprocity and gifting. Leave aside the imitational nature of repeating the first act of creation, or the way in which a unified, communal acts reinforce and reestablish that communal cohesion. The slaughter and sharing of meat is both act of giving and receiving, and in blot, it is layered multiple times in multiple ways. The sacrifier, the person who gifts the sacrifice (one’s chieftain or Lord) gifts the animal to be shared. The people attending then gift him the respect and status of his position. The Sacrificer, the person who conducts the sacrifice, then gifts of time and expertise in the conduct of the sacrifice, and is in turn given both status and respect, but also property and food from this – traditionally, the skins were given to priests as evidence of the sacrifice, which would support the priests in a real way. The priests were also given choice grilled offal that was their privilege as the sacrificers. Those people attending blot also give time and energy (and often other foods as well), but above all, they give of themselves, and blót is a gift for them. In ancient times, blót would be one of the few times of the year that those in attendance got to eat meat in abundance.
The layers of gifting continue. The Animal was given a life, it was cared for and husbanded well, as evidenced by its suitability for sacrifice. It then gives of its life so that others may live. The gods gave us these animals in illo tempore, and so we give to them in the sacrifice – the bones that make up the immortal portion of animal, the material that lasts after death, and wrap it in caul fat, which recreates the image of birth. We then place those remains on a sacrificial fire, where they are transformed into immortality. We then deposit those remains somewhere liminal, somewhere the realms between the seen and unseen meet. The rest of the animal, the corruptible flesh, becomes blessed and holy, food for our bodies and spirits, nutritionally dense and delicious. The act of collecting the immortal portions that is our gift to the gods returns a gift to ourselves, in fuel for our bodies and the continuation of life itself.
In Blót, we enact an establishing sacrifice, one that establishes a community and, by virtue of its imitation of the primal act of sacrifice, helps establish an ordered cosmos. We come together and sit down to a communal meal, húsl, itself the product of that sacrifice. We give to ourselves, and also to the gods. We receive, from ourselves, and from the gods. For this reason, I place it at the origin point of the ritual plane. It is the establishment and renewal of religious community, and that community’s relationship with the holy powers. It need not be a constant thing, and there will be times when libations and other votive offerings are the ritually necessary thing to do. But at the heart of it, the sacrifice of animals is the highest expression of our religious identity.
Detienne, Marcel, and Jean Vernant. The Cuisine of Sacrifice among the Greeks. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989. pp 106 – 117. In some cases, the art depicts two people slaughtering the animal. This may be because the fragmentary nature of the sketches, or because of ritual drift, but more than likely, because this Urn depicts a single sacrificial ritual with multiple victims, and not multiple instances of the rite. ↩︎
Girard, Rene. Violence and the Sacred. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977. ↩︎